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Government to propose its own microbeads ban, calling other parties' bills 'flawed and confused'

The Green Party and Labour have proposed bills on banning microbeads. Fianna Fáil said they’re working on their own one. Now it’s Fine Gael’s turn.

shutterstock_521846272 Shutterstock / Africa Studio Shutterstock / Africa Studio / Africa Studio

THE GOVERNMENT IS to bring forward legislation banning the sale of products that contain microbeads, calling the Green Party’s previous bill ‘significantly flawed’ and accusing Labour’s bill of ‘generally confusing’ microbeads and microplastics.

That means four political parties all agree products containing microbeads should be banned – but have different proposals on how to do it.

Microbeads are mostly used in some soaps, shower gels and facial scrubs to exfoliate your skin, although they can be found in toothpastes and abrasive cleaners.

The tiny plastics  (usually between 0.0004-1.24 mm wide) enter the world’s waterways in their billions, and because of their size, are almost impossible to remove.

In waterways, fish and other wildlife mistake the tiny scraps of plastic for food. From there, the beads are integrated into the food chain.

In a statement to, the government said that although Minister for Housing Simon Coveney would have preferred an EU-wide ban, the effects of microbeads in freshwater was “a particular concern” for him.

A spokesperson said:

The Minister… is introducing legislation to prohibit the manufacture or sale of products containing microbeads where these are likely to be rinsed off into wastewater and potentially, make their way into rivers, lakes and seas.

They added that although the detail of the bill hasn’t been decided, that they were now focusing on getting legal permission for the ban from the European Union.

shutterstock_539062411 Shutterstock / Africa Studio Shutterstock / Africa Studio / Africa Studio

Is the EU a problem?

With each bill that’s been proposed in the Houses of the Oireachtas to ban microbeads, there’s been speculation whether the ban could conflict with EU rules.

Coveney told Cabinet in November that the government was supportive of banning microbeads in principle, but said imposing a ban at that stage would go against Article 33 and 35 of the EU treaty which guarantee the free movement of goods.

But politicians including Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan have said that this is nonsense, as the UK and France have already begun the process to ‘ban the bead’.

Although the EU’s single market rules don’t allow for ‘the exclusion of products’, there are exceptions under Article 36;

…on grounds of public morality, public policy or public security; the protection of health and life of humans, animals or plants; the protection of national treasures possessing artistic, historic or archaeological value; or the protection of industrial and commercial property.

But the government maintains that it does need to notify the EU of their intentions.

Under EU rules, there is a requirement for Ireland to formally notify the Commission that we intend to introduce such legislation. Introducing such a Bill in the Oireachtas prior to such required notification would put us in breach of this directive and open to immediate, and probably successful challenge.

So what’s new about this bill?

shutterstock_299721605 Shutterstock / MILA Zed Shutterstock / MILA Zed / MILA Zed

According to the government, the ban won’t be limited to cosmetics and personal care products, “but also includes detergents and scouring agents” that contain microbeads.

The government said the reason they didn’t back Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan’s bill last November was because it had “significant flaws” that they are hoping to avoid.

For a start, it was more limited in ambition than our current policy position.
It did not cover detergents and scouring agents which also can contain plastic microbeads.

The government added it also didn’t provide any investigative or enforcement powers, and that the penalties as laid out were disproportionate and not in keeping with recent legislation. For example:

The specification of a fine of “up to €10,000 per item” could mean that a shopkeeper with a carton of 100 bottles of eye make-up containing plastic glitter for sale could be liable to a fine of up to €1 million.

It added that under the Green Party’s proposal, the monitoring programme it proposed was “far too broad in scale to be either useful or scientifically justified”, adding “it would be unworkable, massively costly and ineffective”.

shutterstock_128242052 Shutterstock / Steve Cordory Shutterstock / Steve Cordory / Steve Cordory

Similarly, the government said it can’t support the currently-proposed microbeads bill introduced by Labour’s Sean Sherlock.

It says that this is mainly to do with the EU, but there are some other concerns.

It confuses microbeads with microplastics generally and makes no enforcement provisions.
We need more time to develop scientifically and technically robust, future-proofed definitions of ‘plastics’ and ‘microbeads’ to ensure the legislation is effective.

It’s still unknown when the government’s proposal will be introduced as some details of the legislation had to be ironed out – including what fine will be imposed on people who make or sell microbead products.

The details of the ban will be decided through analysing recommendations from the consultation process, technical and scientific research, and looking at recent microbead-bans in Canada and the USA and those already underway in France and the UK.

The public consultation on microbeads ended on 24 March 2017 and had over 3,000 submissions over the six-week period. The government will publish the findings at a later date.

Read: Britain wants a global ban on microbeads – so what’s Ireland going to do about it?

Read: Government to oppose Greens’ bid to ban microbeads, claiming bill breaches EU rules

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